The Web Is the Real World

"Like an Uber for" became one of the most hackneyed phrases in tech this year. It's also one of the most profound.

Le Sortie de l'opéra en l'an 2000 (Albert Robida/Library of Congress)

In the hollow universe of corporate jargon, tech clichés inspire a particular kind of madness. Invoked broadly, they become absurd. Behold the disruption! The innovation! The surprise and delight! If everyone's failing fast, at some point, isn't everyone just failing?

Which is why, when everything became "like an Uber for" everything else* in 2014, none of it sounded all that meaningful. (*See also: Pizza, private jets, drones, snow removal, prostitutes, ATMs, housekeeping, weed, dry cleaning, dog walking, coffee, ambulances, car breakdowns, language tutoring, &c.)

But there's another reason Uber, public relations swamp monster though it may be, has become the go-to way to describe an on-demand service. Somewhere on the way to its $40 billion valuation, Uber crossed a cultural threshold this year.

"Like an Uber for" is shorthand for describing an item or service delivered wherever you are and whenever you want it, but the phrase also hints at a much larger shift in people's expectations about their interactions with the world. It turns out one of the most hackneyed phrases in tech this year may also be one of the most profound.

Uber's simple brilliance, Atlantic contributing editor Alexis Madrigal once pointed out, can be explained like this: You touch a button on your phone and something happens in the world. Or, as venture capitalist and early Uber user Jon Callaghan wrote in 2010, "what started as a one button push ended up with me zooming across time and space merely 3 minutes later." Which is huge. Because at the scale of the city and the street, the line between the physical world and the digital one is now blurred. And that's happening all over the world. Uber is now in 200 cities. It is cemented in the city dweller's lexicon as one of the basic ways to get around.

Think of it this way: When Google became synonymous with online searching, it wasn't just because Google was the best known search engine out there. It was because search engines completely changed our behavior. And Google was the one that blended a new business model with a user experience that was simple, appealing, and, crucially, connected people with the answers they wanted. Google didn't just create new behaviors, it changed how we expect to interact with information. And in the five years since Uber launched, it has come to represent a shift of the same magnitude. The near ubiquity of the smartphone means we've brought the web out of the "computer room"—yes, people really used to call it that—and into the world, where we are weaving it into the way we do everything.

This is why making distinctions between online and offline increasingly feels strained. It's why officials are finally having serious conversations about how to handle threats and harassment online. It's why "new media" is just "media" now. And it's why we'll eventually go from talking about "the Internet of things" to just, you know, "things."

A couple summers ago, when Yale was redesigning its historic Sterling Memorial Library, I asked the head librarian there about this phenomenon. How can a library best use physical space to serve a generation of students accustomed to organizing around information online? What would that kind of library even look like?

She immediately had an answer. “Just like you can change your Facebook page or homepage online, you’re expecting flexibility and customization in physical areas,” Susan Gibbons told me. So Yale ordered some furniture that could be set up and broken down quickly for collaborative study environments. It created physical spaces that reflected the fluidity of the online world. “It doesn’t have to be a dichotomy of physical and digital," Gibbons said.

This is just how the world is now.

The interesting thing was, Gibbons told me, she'd noticed students were still using the physical space of the library—it is gorgeous and gothic and tranquil—but they were working almost completely online while they were there. "It's funny," she told me. "They come into the library with a laptop and they use the collections, but they use it all digitally."

Increasingly, we occupy physical and digital spaces in concert. (There's a name for this in the television industry: the second screen.) Most Americans now have Internet-connected phones, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Nearly half of Americans own an iPad or other tablet. People expect to be able to press a button on the screens of these devices and make something materialize in the physical world. Yet the integration that's already happened isn't always evident in the way people talk about technology.

I love how we talk about the internet like it isn’t us

— Trei Brundrett (@clockwerks) December 20, 2014

People still talk about the web like it isn't the real world. But this is the real world in 2014: The press of a button on a smartphone can summon a ride home in minutes. Self-tracking devices turn footsteps on the sidewalk into data points. The Internet is art on the wall. Runners use GPS-based apps to draw pictures with the strides they take. Astronauts 3D-printed a socket wrench in outer space this year. Uber made skywriting as easy as sending a text message.

The larger promise, the one that is shaping the way people see their relationship to the Internet and to one another, is that proximity and time are no longer the barriers they once were to getting what you want. For better and for worse. You touch a pocket-sized screen and something physical appears next to you—a human who can drive you, or a wrench so you can fix your 3D printer in low orbit. This is astonishing. It's also totally normal now.

Consider this message, from America Online to its users in 1996: "When you first get online, you don't quite know how it will intersect with your life. How many times will you log in, and how much time will you spend? What will you do once you're there?"

Nearly two decades later, we have clear answers. We don't really have to go anywhere. We're already online all the time. And, it seems, we can do anything we want.